Last Sunday when the Green Bay Packers demolished the Chicago Bears 55-14, defensive coordinator Dom Capers unleashed a new wrinkle. It involved moving outside linebacker Clay Matthews to inside linebacker for much of the game.
According to ESPN’s Rob Demovsky, Matthews played a total of 53 snaps, with 38 of those coming at middle linebacker (72%).
This move was precipitated by two glaring problems with the existing inside linebacker rotation:
- Inability to get off blocks and drive downhill to the ball.
- Ineffectively covering the middle of the field in pass coverage.
As we’ll see in the film below, Matthews’ presence at middle linebacker went a long way towards correcting those problems. It’s yet to be seen if Matthews will remain there in the future, or at what frequency of his snaps, but the new look is very encouraging.
According to Clay, he had only made the conversion to middle linebacker after they bye week and took a 5-day crash course in linebacking.
While breaking down his 38 snaps at middle linebacker, I took away three key observations:
- Clay was most effective when he played the middle linebacker on the boundary side of the formation.
- He was very good at avoiding blocks, which allowed him to move freely and meet the ball carrier in the hole.
- He instantly upgraded the pass coverage in the middle of the field.
We’ll look at five plays where Clay made an impact while playing in the boundary middle linebacker position.
In the play below, the Bears are attempting to run an inside zone with Forte (#22). Matthews anticipates the ball, and moves between the hash marks. When Forte decides to cut back to the boundary, Matthews avoids the block of #74, who was responsible for the boundary defender, and drops Forte for no gain. Nice anticipation and pursuit.
In the next play, the Bears are running a split zone, which is variation of the zone, but it has the tight end (#83) come across the formation to seal the back side. Clay cleanly squares up Forte and meets him in the hole for a small gain.
This third play below was a little bit of luck in getting the right defense call for the offensive play. Capers called an outside stunt with Matthews and Peppers. By doing so, Matthews was in perfect position to de-cleat the receiver on the end-around. This type of defensive play call still allows Clay to utilize his skills as an outside pass rusher.
In the fourth play below, the Bears are attempting to pass the ball and the Packers counter by playing zone coverage. Even though Clay doesn’t have a lot of experience playing the hook/curl zone (the zone played in the middle of the field) because he has more experience playing the curl/flat zone (the zone played on the outside of the field), he diagnoses the play perfectly and keeps the ball in front of him the whole time. He reacts to the scrambling quarterback and stops him for almost no gain.
Finding middle linebackers who can stuff the run is easier than finding ones who can go out in pass coverage. Clay is a unique blend of power and speed, which allows him to stuff ball carriers at the point of attack, but yet provides him with the makeup speed to drive downhill in zone pass coverage.
The fifth and final play below showcases Clay’s pass coverage skills. The Bears are trying to get the ball to the H-back on a delay release route, where he slowly runs an arc around the formation to meet the ball on the hash mark. Clay does a great job at getting proper depth in his drop to avoid being vulnerable on a vertical or double move. When the ball is in the air, he drives downhill to meet the receiver for no additional yards. The zone kept the play in front and didn’t yield a large chunk of yards.
Clay Matthews was effective against the Bears, and it gives hope the defense during the remainder of the season. His success might have been a product of the unscouted nature of it, leaving the Bears unprepared for that look. However, linebacker responsibilities are nearly universal in the NFL, so the offense should have known how to attack a (read capital A) middle linebacker. But, Clay was athletic enough to pull it off and he appears to be one potential answer this season to the two major problems described above.
I believe the GIFs embedded above to be fair use under the premise of being short clips of the original broadcast that are transformative for news reporting, commentary, critique, illustration, and teaching purposes.——————